South Carolina coach Will Muschamp likes to lament what he calls an “instant coffee society.”
“It’s not add water, instant player,” Muschamp has said repeatedly this season.
His freshman quarterback proved the point for him Saturday night, as the Gamecocks lost 17-10 to Kentucky. Brandon McIlwain was 15 of 30 passing for 177 yards and had 13 carries for 11 yards against the Wildcats. It was clear all night that he was playing his fourth collegiate football game.
They’re called growing pains because they’re painful, in the way that watching South Carolina try to move the ball against a previously woeful Wildcats defense was painful. Each of Kentucky’s first three opponents this season – Southern Miss, Florida and New Mexico State – had at least 500 yards of total offense. The Gamecocks had 268.
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“We are just having a hard time getting anything going in the throwing game,” Muschamp said. “There was a lot of lack of execution. It wasn’t all Brandon’s fault. We have to do a better job of getting in and out of the right looks. It’s frustrating, but we will continue to go back and work at it. We’re a young group, we’ll continue to improve and get better. Disappointed in the way we played offensively.”
South Carolina’s offense has plenty of issues. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Randrecous Davis missed the game because of hamstring injuries. The offensive line is inconsistent. There’s no evidence of running back depth or explosion.
And all those issues are compounded by having a first-year freshman at quarterback.
“As a coach, you have to do enough to give your guys a chance to be successful, yet you also have to do enough of what your guys can execute and what your guys can function with,” Muschamp said. “In the first quarter, we had some issues functioning offensively with a lack of execution, a lack of communication. It wasn’t all at one position. We have to play better around that position and play better at that position.”
McIlwain, who was making his first start in the SEC and first on the road, skipped his first throw of the game 5 yards short. He struggled to keep his eyes downfield when pressure came and even sometimes when it didn’t. He cost his team a timeout in a delay of game situation. He wasn’t accurate on his passes, particularly on the final drive of the game when two key balls sailed wide and high.
In short, he was exactly what you should expect a freshman quarterback to be. He’s essentially taking driving lessons on the autobahn, and sometimes the results make spectators want to look away.
“It’s different if you have a guy back there who’s been doing it three years, but that’s where we are,” Muschamp said. “We have to go find a way and make it work. That’s what we need to do as coaches.”
The Gamecocks, who started senior Perry Orth in the first two games of the season, have staked their season to McIlwain at this point. They intend to keep using him as their only quarterback, Muschamp said.
South Carolina’s coach warned his players immediately after the game that there would be no finger-pointing, senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said.
“Brandon is a fierce competitor,” Zandi said. “We are going to come in tomorrow and work. We are not going to have any ‘Oh-me’s.’ We are going to man up, take our loss like a man, figure out what’s going wrong, correct it and move on.”
Kentucky had surrendered an SEC-worst 43.7 points per game coming into Saturday.
“I give credit to those guys because they won,” Zandi said, “but I don’t think they were as good as they showed out there today.”
That leaves only one other option then.